Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 32: Race Preferences in Disguise?

A controversial program designed to bring “social equity” to the college admissions process may soon be implemented at colleges and universities nationwide. Questions remain, however, over whether the program contains race-preferential policies. The new program is called “Strivers” and was developed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which devises the SAT, as a way to account for background factors of prospective college students. The Strivers formula, however, depends upon several factors which race-blind admissions policies should avoid – including handicapping students based upon race and ethnicity -when admitting students. The handicap works as follows:

1. A statistical equation generates an expected SAT score for every test-taker based on 14 different categories. Key categories include race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, parents’ education level, and the location and academics of a student’s high school.

2. A Strivers score is then developed, based on the difference between the actual test-takers SAT score and expected score. Those who score 200 points higher than the expected score are identified as Strivers.

3. Colleges are then offered both a race-blind model and one which takes students’ race and ethnicity into account. When race is taken into account, the expected score for blacks and Hispanics would be lower, because those groups have a history of lower scores on the SAT. Their chances of being identified as a Striver are thus increased.

While Strivers’ proponents are touting the new program as a fairer way to evaluate college-bound students, opponents are questioning its philosophy and legality. “I’m afraid this program looks suspiciously like a collaboration between administrators at elite schools, who would like to maintain race-based preferences in the face of growing legal challenges, and ETS, which would like to maintain its preeminence in the academic testing business,” said Dr. John Staddon, a professor of psychology at Duke University. “Either the tests measure competence, or they do not. To go beyond competence is to corrupt the process.” “I’m dubious about it,” Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, told the The Wall Street Journal last week. “How do you know what a person should score? The purpose of the score is to tell you a person’s actual academic capacity.” There may be other factors behind the program besides the desire to fairly measure students’ capabilities. As more federal laws are striking down many traditional affirmative action programs – pushing minority students out of top schools for which they do not academically qualify – many education leaders are scrambling for ways to keep minorities at top tier, four-year institutions. Strivers would give schools a backhanded way of using race-preferences without having to walk the thin, legal line. Such reasoning may fly in the face of a testing program designed to provide an objective portrayal of students’ capabilities. Proponents contend, however, that such programs may be the only way to save a system that is slowly dying.

“Our polls show that people don’t want to give the rich African-American daughter of an African-American lawyer special treatment,” said Anthony Carnevale, an ETS vice president who heads the Strivers project. “But the poor African-American woman from the wrong part of town and the bad school is a different story.”